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Archive for the ‘Diversity’ Category

Time magazine’s January 11 issue hit newsstands last week with a compelling teaser on its cover: “How Megachurches Are Helping Bridge America’s Racial Divide.” Soon, emails and Facebook updates from friends alerted me to the article and urged me to check it out. A Time report on Christians and the racial divide? This was a big deal.

Racial reconciliation among evangelicals is one of those topics that come and go based on who’s currently talking it up. Back in the mid-1990s, when groups like the Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and the Promise Keepers men’s ministry were on the reconciliation bandwagon, it was all the rage. But Christians who are engaged in race and justice issues on a daily basis know that these periods of heightened interest typically fade after people lose that initial “we are one” buzz.

Almost a decade ago (yikes!), when I worked at Christianity Today, we convened a forum of Christian leaders to discuss the then-controversial findings of the just-released book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. The book’s thesis, as we summarized it then: Most white evangelicals deny the existence of any ongoing racial problem in the U.S., and many blame the media and African Americans who refuse to forget the past for any lingering racial conflict. And then the whopper: Evangelical theology, with its individualized worldview, actually hinders our progress toward racial reconciliation and social justice in America. Emerson and Smith’s work arguably did more to elevate the conversation about race among white evangelicals than any other book over the last 40 years.

In my own book on Christians and race, I wrote about the significance of Divided by Faith and how it challenged and inspired countless Christian leaders, including, most famously, Willow Creek Community Church’s founding pastor Bill Hybels. That a book on race could actually transform the thinking of one of the nation’s most influential evangelical pastors says a lot, so it wasn’t surprising to see Time magazine pick up on the story too.

David Van Biema

I was a bit taken aback when Time‘s religion writer David Van Biema called me out of the blue last year to pick my brain on the “desegregation of evangelical megachurch” theme around which his article was taking shape. I initially pushed him to consider the many smaller churches and ministries that had been intentionally pursuing racial reconciliation and diversity long before the ideas showed up on Willow Creek’s radar screen. I suggested that any increase in racial diversity at megachurches like Willow is probably due more to the changing demographics of the suburbs, with their growing numbers of middle-class African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. My theory was that it’s not so much that the megachurches are becoming more intentional about race but that they just naturally offer large, neutral settings for middle-class minorities who don’t feel entirely comfortable in ethnic-specific churches, but who would feel out of place in smaller, all-white congregations as well. The size and seeker-friendly nature of megachurches make them ideal places for minority Christians to just become a part of the scenery (i.e. community) without any pressure to be that church’s representative “black family” or “Latino family.” While I think this is still a large part of what’s happening with the increasing racial diversity in big evangelical churches, I realize that there are many other factors at play as well. And I applaud David for taking on the huge task of exploring this phenomenon.   

With the Time article reviving the race conversation among evangelicals (at least for another week or so), I thought it would be interesting to chat with David about his article and what he learned, as an impartial observer, about the evangelical community and race. Check out my interview with him at UrbanFaith.com, then come on back and let me know what you think about some of the issues David’s article raises.

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time-willow175x145.jpgAs you probably know, one of the big articles making the rounds this week is Time magazine’s major report on Willow Creek Community Church and the noteworthy progress being made in evangelical megachurches to bridge the racial divide. Time religion reporter David Van Biema uses Willow Creek’s journey, and senior pastor Bill Hybel’s personal spiritual awakening on the issue of race in America, as a window to how the larger evangelical church is doing in this arena. Assessing the American church’s long struggle to overcome its complicated racial history, Van Biema writes:

Since Reconstruction, when African Americans fled or were ejected from white churches, black and white Christianity have developed striking differences of style and substance. The argument can be made that people attend the church they are used to; many minorities have scant desire to attend a white church, seeing their faith as an important vessel of cultural identity. But those many who desire a transracial faith life have found themselves discouraged — subtly, often unintentionally, but remarkably consistently. In an age of mixed-race malls, mixed-race pop-music charts and, yes, a mixed-race President, the church divide seems increasingly peculiar. It is troubling, even scandalous, that our most intimate public gatherings — and those most safely beyond the law’s reach — remain color-coded.

Among the article’s most revealing claims is that Willow Creek’s congregation is now 20% minority (20% is cited as the quantitative threshold of a truly integrated congregation). Van Biema points out, however, that even though Willow has increased its numbers of non-white attendees, the primary pastoral leadership of the 23,400-person church remains entirely white. Van Biema writes:

Willow’s predicament is hardly surprising. To some white congregants, naming a person of another color to tell you what Scripture means, week in and week out, crosses an internal boundary between “diversity” (positive) and “affirmative action” (potentially unnerving).

This sobering observation serves to remind readers that the journey toward true diversity and racial reconciliation in the church is not an easy road. Megachurches like Willow are often looked to for their dynamic ministry models of “how to do it right.” But addressing racial and cultural issues in the local church context does not lend itself to simplistic formulas or 40-day adventures.

Overall, though, it’s interesting to see the mainstream press paying so much attention to racial reconciliation issues in the evangelical church. It’s a good reminder that what we do both individually and corporately as Christians is being watched and surveyed by many in the wider culture.

Read the entire article here, and stay tuned to UrbanFaith.com for an interview with Time‘s David Van Biema on what he discovered during the process of putting the article together. I’ll let you know when it goes up.

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Just wanted to call attention to my friend Amanda Long’s two-part series at UrbanFaith.com. She writes about the Justice Journey taken by members of her church and several other Christian leaders in Omaha, Nebraska. The Justice Journey is based on the Sankofa event that was birthed in the Evangelical Covenant Church. It involves a usually multiracial group of folks taking a bus trip to historic civil rights sites in Southern cities and reflecting on that history and what it should mean for us today. The goal is to give participants a more personal and informed understanding of what may be required of us for true racial reconciliation and social justice in our churches, communities, and nation. Amanda’s two articles explore the “event” of the Justice Journey and look at how the experience is transforming the churches in her Omaha community.

Amanda Long

Amanda and her husband, Jeremy, are very dear friends who used to reside around the corner from us in the Chicagoland area but returned home to Nebraska a few years ago. Looking at Omaha through her “Chicago eyes,” Amanda was startled to discover that there are a lot of similarities between her new town and the big “urban” city that she left behind. She writes:

Omaha is routinely rated as one of the best mid-sized cities in the U.S., and we enjoy all it has to offer. However, soon after moving here I was surprised to discover some stark realities.

Omaha is a wealthy city, but it has the highest black child poverty rate in the entire United States. In the midst of our current recession, Omaha’s unemployment rate is still under 5 percent. However, in parts of North Omaha, which is a primarily black community, the unemployment rate is 20 percent overall, with census tracts that chronically experience a 30 to 40 percent unemployment rate. When friends from Chicago visit, it is not unusual for them to be disturbed by our local newscasts — they thought Omaha, Nebraska, would be different from Chicago — but we too hear regular reports of almost nightly shootings and homicides. We’ve also realized how segregated the city is, even compared to Chicago. So, while Omaha is a great place for some, others in my city have a different experience.

 This is Amanda’s first foray into journalism, and she does a wonderful job covering the Justice Journey event and interviewing the various leaders of the Omaha movement. Please check out her articles, then chime in with your comments. Have you ever participated in a Sankofa or Justice Journey? How effective do you think experiences like these are for bringing about genuine racial healing and reconciliation? Would the churches in your community benefit from a joint “Justice Journey” experience?

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In case you hadn’t heard, Zondervan made a major announcement yesterday regarding the Deadly Viper Character Assassins book that was the source of so much anger and controversy recently. Effective immediately, Zondervan undertook the courageous step of permanently removing all the books from stores and discontinuing all related curriculum and products. Quite a bold gesture, and a remarkable example of repentance. Hopefully, the pain and high emotion of the past few weeks can now give way to true healing and reconciliation. This is a wonderful start, but it will not be easy.

The Deadly Viper website and blog were shut down today shortly after Zondervan’s announcement. This is the message that now greets its visitors.

A search for the words “Deadly Viper” on Twitter brings a variety of revealing Tweets. Very common are messages like this one: “Irritated about the whole Deadly Viper thing. irritated. really? ya had to shut them down?” And this one: “The Deadly Viper issue makes my stomach turn. I need to think about something else because I’m getting ticked off.”

There likely will be some backlash against Zondervan’s decision and against the movement of folks, led by our very brave sisters and brothers in the Asian American community, who took a firm stand against the negative stereotypes connected with the DV book and promo video. Many will view this whole episode as the epitome of political correctness and as an unfair attack on two devoted Christian brothers. We need to show patience and grace to those who don’t understand the point of this outcome.

This has especially been a difficult time for Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite, the authors of Deadly Viper. They need our prayers and compassion.

And finally, we need to remember our Asian and Asian American brothers and sisters who have been at the forefront of this conflict. I think of Soong-Chan Rah, Kathy Khang, Eugene Cho, and Ken Fong in particular, but there have been many others who have led the way through their blog posts and comments, Tweets, Facebook updates, and letters of complaint to Zondervan. These women and men have felt the strain and sadness of this epic event.

Though I supported the protest from the beginning, I admittedly was a bit concerned about the overwhelming force of the initial admonishment of the authors. I always felt that Zondervan should be the target of the strongest protest. But blog posts like this one from my dear friend Helen Lee and this one from Soong-Chan helped me understand why the Asian community needed to act so decisively. They were tired of this mess. I needed to be tired of it, too.

Thank God for this good conclusion. I think He makes His church better through conflicts like this one. Let’s pray that it becomes the start of something greater—something profoundly redemptive.

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Good news regarding the Deadly Viper controversy that has occupied a lot of our attention this week. Here’s the beginning of Soong-Chan Rah’s blog post from this morning:

On Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 4th, several folks gathered on a phone call to talk about the various postings related to the Deadly Viper’s book. The people in the conversation were Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite (Authors), Chris Heurtz (Director, Word Made Flesh), Soong-Chan Rah (Prof., North Park), Kathy Khang (InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Ministries Director), and Eugene Cho (Pastor, Quest Church). The conversation was facilitated by Nikki Toyama-Szeto (Urbana 09 Program Director).

Check out the rest of the joint statement at Soong-Chan’s blog. And read his reflections on the meeting at Sojo.net. A copy of the joint statement can also be found at the Deadly Viper blog here, where the text is found under a simple but encouraging headline: “Toward Reconciliation.”

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Deadly Viper coverOne of the toughest parts of being the author of a book about racial reconciliation is that when the latest racial incident flares up, everyone expects you to chime in with your two cents. I’m feeling a bit penniless on this current one, but here goes anyway.

The “current one” I’m talking about is the controversy surrounding a new book from Zondervan called Deadly Viper Character Assassins: A Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life & Leadership. The book, which was coauthored by Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite, uses images, symbols, and caricatures of Asian culture as a light-hearted vehicle for getting at the heavy issues of Christian integrity and character. Not surprisingly, the book has upset a fair number of Asian American Christians, as well as many of us who are not Asian but who identify with the pain felt by our brothers and sisters who are offended by the book’s use of stereotypical imagery and caricatures.

The book is clearly meant to be a fun exploration of character and leadership, and it has been praised by many for its fresh insights and clever presentation. But it appears the authors have inadvertently stumbled into thorny and treacherous territory that they did not know existed; they were simply trying to dispense timeless wisdom in a timely and accessible way. Well, now they know.

Ironically, one would think the book’s publisher, Zondervan, would’ve better anticipated the Asian community’s reaction to the book, given an earlier controversy that followed the publication of a book from its Youth Specialties branch. In that episode, Zondervan and Youth Specialities took heroic measures to publicly apologize and correct the offense at a considerable financial cost. Hopefully, this latest episode will have a similarly redemptive conclusion. Yet, I wonder if things could’ve been handled differently earlier on.

My friend Soong-Chan Rah, who has become one of the evangelical church’s most vocal (and effective) activists on these types of issues, inspired this latest movement with his initial blog posts about the Deadly Viper book and a promotional video on Facebook. Soong-Chan’s open letter to the authors and Zondervan is quite provocative. But what’s most fascinating, and perhaps even instructive, is the slew of comments related to Soong-Chan’s posts, as well as an evolving thread over at the Deadly Viper blog.

I must confess that I’m not totally comfortable with the way the protest has played out so far. It’s not that I disagree with the gist of it. I think it’s important to call attention to these types of things, especially when they’re happening within the Christian community. However, my initial impression is that the high level of “shock and awe” that Soong-Chan and others have brought to this issue probably has been a bit overwhelming and confusing for Foster and Wilhite (though I think Zondervan should’ve seen it coming). Maybe I’m just feeling a little squeamish about this necessary phase of protest. I know that hard and unpleasant honesty must often precede genuine dialogue, repentance, and reconciliation. Still, I get the sense that Foster and Wilhite had no clue that their earnest effort to create something entertaining and edifying would be perceived as being wrongheaded and insensitive by so many. I’m sure it wasn’t even on their radar that appropriating Asian culture carried with it an obligation to “take it seriously.” They were simply parroting the stereotypes and jokes that are now so common in American pop culture.

Parodying Asian culture has become so commonplace in America that many of us naturally assume that the Asian community is in on the joke. When I was a child, I would watch Hong Kong Phooey every Saturday morning. Every kid on the playground wanted to be Bruce Lee. The Karate Kid movies ruled in the ’80s. Last year Kung Fu Panda made hundreds of millions at the box office. And fried rice, egg rolls, and sushi are just as “American” as French fries, pizza, and tacos.

We take it all for granted, and I would surmise that many white Americans believe that Asians are now so assimilated into American life that they have no problem with the tongue-in-cheek references to their various cultural heritages. Asians, after all, are a peaceful people. They’re certainly not as hyper-sensitive about race as (for instance) African Americans are. There are no Asian American Jesse Jacksons or Al Sharptons—at least not any who show up on our televisions complaining about something every other night.

So, it must be rather jarring for some people to discover that 21st-century Asians can feel as marginalized and disrespected as other minority groups in America.

But, again, I don’t want to ascribe any ill intent to Mike Foster, Jud Wilhite, and their book. I believe they innocently waded into these choppy waters. As a published author, I know the excitement of coming up with a good idea, toiling over the computer to get the words just right, seeing your publisher get behind your vision, watching as the design team comes up with a great cover and the marketing team develops a winning campaign. Ah, and nothing compares to that day when your finished book finally arrives. Holding it, staring at it, flipping through its crisp pages is pretty much all you’re physically and mentally able to do those first few hours after receiving it. And when it’s a Christian book, featuring a message that you’ve prayed God would use to influence and transform lives, there’s just nothing that compares to this.

Deadly Vipers is a beautiful little book. It’s designed and packaged with superb creativity, and the content is the kind of relevant stuff that Christian leaders and laypeople everywhere need to hear. I’m hoping the outcry against the book’s cultural blind spots will be tempered by grace and humility and empathy. I really resonate with this post at the Next Gener.Asian Church blog.

Think about what Foster and Wilhite must be feeling right now. Over the last year or two, they’ve invested their lives into this little book. They hoped and prayed that it would help others, but now they’re feeling attacked by a passionate movement of folks whom they probably assumed would be on their side. I’m sure this has been an eye-opening experience for them. I’m sure there’s something for all of us to learn.

 

Update: An encouraging post at Soong-Chan’s blog this morning:

I have heard indirectly, that Mike Foster will be engaging in a direct phone conversation with several Asian-Americans about ways to progress forward.  This is very good news.  As far as I know, this will be the first attempt by Mike Foster to engage in a direct dialogue with those who find the material problematic.  Please be in prayer for this conversation and for ensuing conversations.

Let’s pray for a positive outcome.

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I can’t read the guy’s mind, of course, but after the initial, natural response of “Yeah, I got it goin’ on,” I’m thinking this is what President Obama must’ve really been thinking upon hearing that he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize

Dang it! It’s a great honor and all, but I really don’t need this right now. I’ve got wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—not to mention nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea. Man, don’t they know I’ve still got health-care reform and the economic downturn to figure out at home? And on top of that, this will just be more fodder for all the haters who want to see me fail no matter what. Couldn’t they have put me on the list for 2017?

Well, at least that’s what I would’ve been thinking if I were in his shoes.

I also was shocked to hear the news this morning that Obama had won the Peace Prize. Clearly, he has yet to accomplish anything concrete that would naturally point to his selection. However, I do agree in part with Fareed Zakaria’s take over at CNN.com that this is more of an award to America—a challenge and encouragement to us (and the world) to pursue the high rhetoric of hope and international cooperation that Obama has advocated.

What’s more, the award is also a recognition of what happened in the U.S. last November when we elected Obama. It’s a salute to America’s ability to finally rise up to the ideals of equality, freedom, and strength through diversity that it was founded on. I think if our country is truly serious about living up to those ideals, we will ultimately prove the Nobel committee members to have been correct in their decision, whether we like Obama or not.

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Did anyone else catch this report by NPR’s Steve Inskeep on diversity and gentrification in Houston? Lots of important issues coverered here. Listen for Texas State Rep. Garnet Coleman. His insights may be helpful to consider as we continue to wrestle with the matter of  perception vs. reality in our discussions about race and racism in our nation today.

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Is it racism?

When I have some time, I’d like to explore that topic at length here. But, in the meantime, there’s a great conversation going on over at Eugene Cho’s blog on this issue. Eugene has an excellent commentary on recent events involving Joe Wilson’s heckling of the president and, just yesterday, Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that Wilson’s outburst was rooted in racism. Please check it out.

Also, check out this inspiring story at Leadership Journal‘s Out of Ur blog about how the recession is actually forcing some churches to become multiethnic.

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An interesting (and creative) Associated Press analysis here about what both Professor Henry Louis Gates and Officer James Crowley might’ve been thinking during their now-infamous run-in a couple weeks ago. The reporter uses the official police report as well as Gates’s on-the-record statements following the episode to piece togehter a sort of dramatic timeline of what could’ve been going through each man’s head during their fateful encounter.

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